Do Subways, for pedestrian crossing, make sense in Indian cities?

The Bhusari Colony Bus Depot Junction on Paud Road
where the Subway Pedestrian Crossing is proposed.
I am confronted with a dilemma since last week. A subway proposal has been proposed for the Kothrud Bus Depot junction on Paud Road and I have been asked to comment on its design! Keeping in character of not staying within my scope, I have started raking up too many unasked and unanswered questions. And why not? After all, it is my hard earned tax money that will end up in making this subway.

On the face of it, the subway proposal is a great political project - its gives visibility, it is in tune with the principles of sustainability, it promotes safe pedestrian movement and hence indirectly promotes walkability in a city; it represents social equity and it targets the heart of voters by making road crossing safe for school children (and hence woos mothers) and senior citizens.

Pedestrian choose to cross taking risks despite presence of a
pedestrian crossing bridge
Source: www.thehindu.com
But I think in India, and as I understand it, all over the world, a subway pedestrian crossing is increasingly seen as a Planning Blunder. It is a typical case where putting up a Project takes precedence over Planning of the area and the larger design of Policy. To put it bluntly, a subway project is a strategy to sweep the real issue of transport policy under the carpet. In Pune, very few subway crossings have been successful. The main issue is that if you have even a 24m wide road and there is no physical barrier at the junction itself, there is very little chance that people will climb two flights of steps to cross the road! Vulnerable citizens like senior citizens, for whom safety if of major concern, are even less likely to pump more blood into their heart and take the risk of climbing, often, broken steps. The risks posed by on-coming traffic are perceived to be lesser! Women and children will shun the crossing as its dark and perceived to be unsafe. Relatively, successful examples have been crossings which are open and which require maneuvering of only a single flight of steps.

Pedestrian Subway in Bangalore - waterlogged and smelly!
Source: www.thehindu.com
But the important aspect that I wish to highlight through this blog post, is the realisation that the mechanics of politics and planning are out of tune when we look at such civic project proposals! The local corporator has been given an outlay of funds for a project - any project that fits the bill and a pedestrian subway project is the one that raises the least eyebrows and is the most politically convenient. After 2.5 years, or half term, the newly elected representatives do need to show something for getting elected and being in office.

So, coming back to my dilemma, do I remain within my scope and suggest changes to some very preliminary and very obvious gaffes in design of the subway proposal or do I exceed my scope and ask my area corporator to stop& think! Should I completely dissuade her from undertaking the project due to its very obvious future failure? Or do I understand that it is a political necessity for her to display visibility through such an 'all-time-favourite' project and guide her into a project that can be slightly modified to ensure better success?

Sharing this example, I also want to rake up the issue of how planning of cities and proposing projects are found to be at loggerheads with the third dimension of politics! Further, this also highlights the most urgent need to generate local area plans, micro studies and surveys to understand that 'blanket' implementation of certain types of projects will not mean that wards are better planned and managed. Is our political mechanism equipped to undertake these studies? Shouldn't my area corporator have a planning guidance to be able to understand micro issues of her ward and thereby empower her to make decisions regarding projects?

While we continue to harp on building more and more, often unneeded, infrastructure, we are losing tremendous opportunity to make Plans and Policies that will actually ensure long term development of a ward. While, Planning at the top is weak, political aspiration of being visible is ensuring that bits and pieces of infrastructure dots our cities. Whether we need and will ever use this infrastructure or not, is a question that political circles are yet to ask!

Comments

  1. Perhaps my thinking is old-fashioned and stereotyped. However, the decision makers should not give a choice when their safety is involved. Crossing a road in the face of a over-bridge, is sheer laziness (I saw all young people in the pic) and a rash attitude towards safety. Hence, one should plan a subway or a foot over-bridge after due studies as given in IRC guidelines and mandates. Then ensure that citizens do not cross the road by erecting barricades and ensuring enforcement.
    My experience in peacetime and in war is that in peacetime soldiers do not take precautions but when bullets are firing around precautions become second nature. Why because death stares in the eye. In civil life, by the time one is run over by a car or a train while crossing illegally, there is no lesson left to be learnt. Hence, one has to compel the ignoramuses to obey the law.
    The trouble with us is that we have still not realised that in India everything is politically driven and everything has a money angle i.e. how much commission can I get? Hence, larger the project the better. It does not matter whether it is needed or is viable. Our consultants and planners are always eager to oblige by fudging reports.
    I have studied DPRs of three major projects planned by PMC. All the DPRs are fudged to show that the flyovers are required while in fact, they are not. Hence, if you find that the traffic on the flyover is hardly worth its cost, who do you blame?

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  2. The questions raised in respect of both, (a) the primary need for overbridges, underpasses, ( and perhaps soon the hideous metal 'skywalks' like those lining the streetscapes in Mumbai ) and (b) the appropriateness of their location and planning are really linked to an important aspect - generally given the least importance and priority - which is DESIGN.

    I think it is necessary to emphasize the importance of DESIGN to the municipal administration and elected corporators, and encourage them to invite better solutions from professionals and experts, perhaps through Design Competitions - which is now an officially accepted process in Government - at par with the conventional 'Tendering' process.

    One of the best local examples of how a professionally "designed" road crossing can become a successful solution, is the triangular Garware underpass at Deccan Gymkhana. Why can't such an evidently effecient model be adopted ( with local adaptations, of course ) in other critical junctions ? I completely agree with Gen.Jatar, of course, that over-the-road crossing should be thoroughly and effectively disabled - at least for 200 to 300 metres from every pedestrian underpass or overbridge.

    The recommended model has all the elements of a good design - A low profile FORM, an effective FUNCTION, good natural LIGHT and VENTILATION, adequate exposure for SAFETY, good AESTHETICS - with a Sambhaji Statue and a High Mast light pole, some LANDSCAPE, some COLOUR SCHEME, a variety of MATERIALS used in flooring and cladding ... and ECONOMICAL construction cost ! WHAT MORE DO WE NEED ?

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  3. Pedestrian subways and overbridges (even well designed ones) represent the outdated thinking about streets. Increasingly it is being recognized that streets should be designed for people, not vehicles. Pedestrian subways and foot overbridges are not designed with pedestrian safety in mind, but to reduce the time for which vehicles have to stop at the junction. It is usually very simple to design a junction such that people can cross safely. However instead of pursuing the simpler, cheaper and more convenient solution, these expensive projects are proposed. It should also be remembered that senior citizens and persons with handicaps (permanent or temporary) will find a subway/FOB not a feasible way to cross the road. Transport for London (TfL), which is the planning authority for London's Transport, had recently reviewed such structures and recommended in many cases (after a proper study) that they should be replaced by safe at-grade crossings. http://www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/Item10-Subways.pdf
    Parisar had also done a study of these structures in Pune and found that people prefer safe at-grade crossings http://parisar.org/activities/analysesreports/121-pedestrian-crossing-facilities-in-pune.html

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  4. I agree with Ranjit. The question is whether the structure is conceived with the objective of helping pedestrians or vehicles. Is it conceived because vehicles don't want to stop for pedestrians or the other way? If it is the other way (pedestrians don't want to stop for vehicles), the subway works.

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  5. Thanks everyone for adding your views and reinforcing my conviction not to have this 'disaster' in my ward as it is. I have spoken about the Garware kind of model too, which I feelt will have better success and also make crossing safe.
    However, like I highlighted in the blog post, the local corporator deals only with 'Projects' and she/her does not have any control over larger policy issues. So she/he just tackles the most obvious solution (seeming solution) which is to get funds and build something! Shouldn't these local projects also have a planning and policy backing? How can a local corporator just decide to do a project, decide its location and get funds for this sort of ad hoc projects in the city?

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